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Lord Howe Island: Strange birds in paradise

You may half expect to see pterodactyls wheeling in the mist – but you can count on a currawong divebombing you.

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The blow to the back of my head came with such unexpected force that it knocked me to my knees. I was hiking through a forest of slender palm trees on this boomerang-shaped sliver of land off the east coast of Australia when the attack happened.

A deranged local perhaps, one of the 320 who inhabit this subtropical speck in the South Pacific? Or a crazed tourist gone mad over the island's somnolent ways and 25 kph. speed limit?

Neither, as it happened. Turning round I was met by the beady yellow eyes and malevolent caw of a currawong, a raven-sized bird with the black and white markings of a magpie.

I'm ashamed to say I was spooked enough to lob a couple of stones at it to prevent another dive bomb. Both missed.

"If you get too close to their nests during the breeding season they do tend to divebomb you," a cheery local told me later.

World Heritage-listed Lord Howe is big on birds. It may be only seven miles long and two miles wide, but it's a haven for half a million birds, from masked boobies to fleshy-footed shearwaters.

"This is one of the great seabird islands of the world," says Ian Hutton, the island's resident Bird Man, who came here in the early 1980s to run the weather station and was so bewitched by the local fauna and flora that he never left.

More than 180 bird species have been recorded on this speck of land. Delicately featured white terns nest on the branches of pine trees next to the post office, sooty terns peer curiously from sand dunes, and wood hens wander nonchalantly into restaurants.

Life on the island is defined by birds – they bring in big-spending tourists from mainland Australia and around the world, many of them keen ornithologists. Flightless birds such as the purple swamp hen are given right of way on the island's single road, and shearwaters nest in burrows beneath people's houses.


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